Response to Birthright Israel overwhelming among students

NEW YORK, Oct. 5 (JTA) – Just weeks after launching a national marketing blitz informing North American Jewish college students of free trips to Israel this winter, Birthright Israel has far more would-be travelers than available spots. And despite the fact that thousands will have to be turned away for this round of trips, the advertisements – primarily on radio stations and in campus newspapers – are continuing in order to set the stage for future efforts, according to Birthright officials. Birthright Israel, a $300 million initiative of mega-funders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, is offering 6,000 free 10-day trips in December and January to Jewish college students who have never been to Israel. A number of studies have found Israel experiences to have a positive influence on young people’s Jewish identities. The overwhelming response to the college offer comes as Birthright Israel is working to define its future funding structure. Originally, Birthright Israel was envisioned as a three-way partnership among philanthropists, the government of Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. But a belated formal invitation to Jewish communities left many of them unsure how they would be able to cover the anticipated costs of sponsoring trips for local residents. Birthright is now making a more “federation-friendly approach,” a source close to the issue said. And recently the Jewish Agency for Israel – which for decades has been the primary provider of educational trips to Israel – began clamoring for a larger programmatic role in the Birthright initiative. One solution being discussed among the Jewish Agency, Israeli government officials – including Prime Minister Ehud Barak – and Birthright is to bring the agency in as a funding partner. The outcome of those discussions may affect the timing of Birthright’s future offerings. The initiative was expected to launch trips for high school students in 2001. To date, Birthright Israel North America reports that it has signed up 10,000 hopefuls to take part in the college trips this winter. The trips will be under the auspices of 12 Jewish organizations, including Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life and the Jewish Community Centers Associations of North America. Hillel, the group slated to take the largest number of students this winter, reports that over 6,000 people have applied for the 3,000 spots it is offering. “This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know more students and give activists boosts to their Jewish identity and Jewish education,” said Jeff Rubin, national director of communications for Hillel. “It’s really energizing the campuses.” Spokespersons for other providers – including B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations – reported that they received more than twice as many calls as they had slots available. Most organizations said they would choose who goes on the basis of a lottery or a combination of lottery and first-come, first-serve. Some lotteries were expected to take place as early as this week. Ivy Abrams, vice president of marketing for Birthright Israel, said the number of calls to Birthright Israel itself have increased tenfold since the marketing campaign – totaling more than $1 million and consisting primarily of radio spots and advertisements in campus newspapers – began on Sept. 6. Abrams described the ads as “humorous, a little irreverent and attention-grabbing.” For his part, Steinhardt said of the responses: “I’m really excited about the fact that the overwhelming number going are not the Jewish activists, those that would have gone anyway, but people that did not have Israel on their radar screen.” Although the effort is generating a surge of interest among students, some of the providers privately expressed doubts about its efficacy. One staff person at an organization that also supervises teen trips to Israel said he is worried potential participants for this summer would delay trips until they could take advantage of a free Birthright offer. He and others, all of whom asked that their names not be used, expressed skepticism that a large 10-day trip would have a meaningful impact. One Hillel director said that for many of his colleagues the effort is “a huge headache,” and that they do not have the resources to do proper follow-up with the participants. Birthright is still discussing what, if any, follow-up programming it will offer participants in this winter’s – or future – trips to Israel. Steinhardt defended the trips, saying “The cliche is that the trip that really counts is the second trip, but in order to have a second trip you have to get to the first trip.”

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